Grilled by Lawmakers, Big Tech Turns Up the Gaslight


When Sign Zuckerberg appeared in front of Congress two years ago, the Facebook chief directorate’s memorable retort to a clueless questioner was “Senator, we run ads.” After Wednesday’s marathon form by Mr. Zuckerberg and three other tech titans at a House hearing on struggle in the tech industry, a more fitting quote might be “Congresswoman, I’m not infallible what you would mean by ‘threaten.’”

That was Mr. Zuckerberg’s evasive serve to a question asked by Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, yon whether Facebook had ever threatened to squash smaller competitors by emulating their products if they wouldn’t let Facebook acquire them.

It was a sound question with a clear-cut answer. Facebook’s copy-and-crush approach has been favourably documented for years, and Ms. Jayapal brought even more receipts — once undisclosed messages in which Mr. Zuckerberg issued thinly veiled forebodings to Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, about what would come off to his company if he refused to sell.

An honest Mr. Zuckerberg might have answered, “Yes, Congresswoman, like most successful tech companies, we acquire concealed competitors all the time, and copy the ones we can’t buy. That’s how we’ve avoided going dated like MySpace or Friendster, and we’re about to do it again with Instagram Calls, our new TikTok clone.” That would have been an illuminating rebutter, and one that could have let lawmakers in on the kill-or-be-killed ethos of Silicon Valley. Preferably, he dodged and weaved, trying to explain away the emails without owning the obvious.

He did the same thing when Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, pressed him for replies about Facebook Research — an app that was used to snoop on users’ smartphone use and give Facebook detailed data about its competitors. Mr. Zuckerberg initially thought he wasn’t familiar with the app, even though Apple’s decision to bar it from its App Aggregate nearly caused a meltdown at his company last year. (He later voiced he misspoke, and that he remembered it.)

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Zuckerberg. Every other note at Wednesday’s hearing — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple — also dodged lawmakers’ most penetrating questions, or professed their ignorance.

The result was a hearing that, at times, sensible of less like a reckoning than an attempted gaslighting — a group of savvy chief executives trying to convince lawmakers that the evidence that their yearslong antitrust inquiry had dug up wasn’t really evidence of anything.

The performance wasn’t particularly convincing. You don’t behove a tech mogul by being sloppy or forgetful, and it strains credulity to believe that these four hypercompetitive, detail-obsessed men — all of whom had many weeks to make ready for Wednesday’s hearing — simply didn’t remember major decisions they’d made.

At one goal, Mr. Bezos was asked about a recent Wall Street Journal gunshot that Amazon had set up a venture capital fund to invest in start-ups, single to then introduce its own versions of those start-ups’ products.

“I don’t know the peculiar ti of that situation,” Mr. Bezos replied.

At another point, Mr. Pichai, inquired to explain whether it was anticompetitive for Google to threaten to delist Yelp if it didn’t sanction the company’s search engine to use its listings in its featured snippets, said he was “beneficial to engage and understand the specifics” at a later date. Yelp has complained publicly in Google’s search engine for years.

And confronted with emails received by House investigators in which Apple employees promised to fast-track a callers through its App Store approval process — a seeming contradiction of Mr. Cook’s proclamation that it treated all developers equally — Mr. Cook responded, “I don’t know alongside that, sir.”

Give the executives this: It’s hard to have nuanced talks about complex and often technical topics in front of an audience of cold politicians, some of whom seemed more interested in generating blazing clips for their Facebook pages than investigating antitrust problems. And the panel’s format — rapid-fire rounds of questioning conducted over video colloquy, with each member given only five minutes at a heretofore to question the witnesses — nearly guaranteed that the conversation would leftovers surface-level.

In addition, many Republican members of the subcommittee seemed to bear no interest in antitrust issues at all, preferring instead to ride partisan diversion horses like claims of anti-conservative bias on social media.

But sundry Democratic members came armed with real, substantive disputes that deserved a fuller airing. The executives’ choice to sidestep these inquiries — or their inability to answer before being cut off — may signal that they serene believe they can run circles around Congress without engaging in undeniable, detailed conversations about how they exercise their power.

That may organize been a reasonable conclusion to draw after the past several years, a term in which Silicon Valley giants added hundreds of billions of dollars in superstore value while Washington barely gave it a passing glance. Without thought plenty of clamoring, lawmakers have failed to pass any meaningful retreat or data protection laws during President Trump’s time in corporation, and Mr. Trump has shown little interest in any tech regulation that does not take in his own Twitter account.

But it is less clear that a say-nothing strategy pass on continue to work, now that lawmakers have begun doing their homework. Persuaded, some members of Congress may still need their iPhones unfolded to them, but there is real expertise on Capitol Hill that wasn’t there even Steven a year ago, and new allies who are willing to give Congress the ammunition it needs.

When Mr. Zuckerberg surfaced before Congress in 2018, tech expertise in Washington was a rare commodity. Now, antitrust mavens schooled in the intricacies of tech platforms are helping Congress investigate.

One such artist, Lina Khan, whose analysis of Amazon’s anti-competitive business traditions made her a star of the “hipster antitrust” movement, appeared at Wednesday’s discovering sitting behind Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, whom she now notifies. Tech industry leaders, who once refrained from criticizing their match titans out of courtesy or cowardice, are now speaking up about issues like the 30 percent cut Apple wins from purchases made through its App Store. And if Mr. Trump loses his re-election bid in November, the convenes from Democrats to break up or regulate big tech companies will only grow louder.

None of this necessarily means that Congress is on the brink of reining in Silicon Valley’s excesses. There are still plenty of lawmakers who wish rather focus on promoting dubious claims of partisan censorship on Facebook, or kicking about fund-raising emails getting stuck in constituents’ spam strainers. And tech companies’ generally good reputations with Americans — not to point out their deep lobbying pockets — may protect them in the end.

But at certain minutes on Wednesday, each of the four tech executives appeared to be taken off protector by the rigor and depth of the questions they faced. If they were in a family way to teach Tech 101 to a group of clueless lawmakers, they in place of found themselves in the principal’s office, being confronted with display of the spitballs they’d thrown. And they must have realized, in those jiffies, that they were seeing the beginnings of accountability.

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